“I will encamp at my house as a guard, against those who march back and forth, and no oppressor will march against them again, for now I have seen with my own eyes.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
It’s hard to imagine the mindset of someone who has been persecuted unless you too have known persecution. Facing severe or sustained (or both!) persecution does something to the human mind such that a person in such a situation thinks and sees the world differently than those who do not share a set of similar experiences. Its a kind of club that no one wants to be a part of, but once you are you share a bond that transcends much of what might otherwise divide you. Israel was a people who had known persecution. Lots of it. If you want to understand why passages like this one are in the Scriptures, you’ve got to understand that.
Now, Israel was far from guiltless. They made plenty of their own mistakes. Their list of sins ran on for several yards. But they were a small nation that had been brutalized by many of the larger nations around them for much of their history. In particular, in the day when Zechariah was doing his prophetic ministry, they had spent the previous two generations as a captive people. Now, while they had been freed to go back home and rebuild their lives, they were still technically the property of someone else who might choose to take away their freedom in a moment. They were victims.
Fully understanding the mind of a victim is difficult to impossible for those who haven’t experienced it. I say that acknowledging that I sit on the outside of that particular club. On the outside it is easy to sit back and say that people shouldn’t think like victims. And, sure, there are no doubt people who have been taught to think through the lens of victimhood who have never really been victims in any sort of meaningful way (I’m thinking of the millions of mostly white, privileged college students who have been taught they are victims of some kind of fantasy ideological oppression). But when your people have truly been the victims of injustice for multiple generations over which they could not exercise any meaningful power to change their situation on their own, the only way that kind of situation changes is with an advocate. The assurance of the help of some kind of advocate is a powerful encouragement even if those looking in from the outside don’t understand it.
Followers of Jesus today are accustomed to thinking through the lens of Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. Because of that, we sometimes have a hard time getting our hearts and minds around prophecies against the nations we find in the writings of the various Old Testament prophets. We struggle to understand why God would take such a hard edge against so many people, promising destruction and judgment on them. Where is the grace that would be revealed in Christ?
What we find here in Zechariah is one of these sections of prophecy. The first seven verses of chapter 9 promise the Lord’s opposition to the Syria, Tyre, Sidon, and the Philistines. He is against them. He will wreck their economies. He will wipe out their populations, leaving only a remnant like that which was left of the Israelites in the various persecutions they have faced. What do we do with this? What does this reveal to us about God’s character that matters for our lives today?
Here are some thoughts:
- If you want to be able to understand passages like this one, put yourself in the shoes of Israel. These were their geopolitical enemies. They were nations that had harassed them for generations. They cheered their downfall at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians. To hear their God declare unequivocally that He had their back was a word of incredible encouragement. They were not alone. The wrongs that had been dealt to them were going to be righted. They would be stopped. The persecution would end.
- Don’t forget about God’s character. He is just. He is committed to justice. Where there is injustice, He is opposed to it. He will punish all sins perfectly and completely. Now, Jesus took the punishment all human sin deserved on the cross, but for those who don’t accept His offer of grace, they will one day face the just punishment for their sins on their own.
- God has a special concern for those who are oppressed. He has a special concern for them and He will bring relief to their suffering. He wants them to know that He has their back. In whatever challenge they are facing, they can count on His support. It may not come at the time and in the place they want it, but He will have their back. He will right the wrongs they have been dealt. And those who have been active in perpetuating the wrongs will be stopped.
- Thinking through the lens of Christ and His command to and example of loving our enemies, we need to understand that in passages like this one, God was expressing His concern for a victimized people in terms they could understand. These terms don’t immediately make sense or seem right to us because we’re not them. We are most notably looking at these words from the opposite side of the cross and Jesus’ life, teachings, and ministry. If we try and demand they fit our mold of understanding we’ll only be frustrated.
- Don’t miss the grace here. God says the judged peoples (specifically the Philistines) “will become a remnant for our God; they will become like a clan in Judah.” What’s this? It is a picture of physical restoration, yes, but more than that it is a picture of spiritual restoration. The best (i.e. most Christ-like) way to overcome your enemies is to make them your friends. God’s judgment is not merely for the purposes of destruction. He has redemption in view. He always has redemption in view. Our God is consistent in both His justice and His love.
We live in a culture today that is still awash in injustice. Our injustice does not look like what Israel was experiencing, but it is there all the same. The playing field of our culture is tilted in favor of some and against others and unfortunately it is the color of someone’s skin that is often the chief determining factor as to on which side of the field they are sitting. For those who are experiencing the injustice of our culture, they should know that the God who is perfect in justice unequivocally has their back. He is working for justice to be done. It may not be in the way and at the time they want, but it will be perfect when it comes. It will be wrapped in a garment of grace as well.
He is against those who are perpetuating injustice–particularly the injustice of racism. Let us then ask–especially we whose skin color falls in a hue that tends to prevent any kind of racism being aimed in our direction–am I contributing to the problem in any way? Passive indifference isn’t enough. We must be thoroughly anti-racism in the same way that we are anti-violence done to our own children. We must look deep within to root out any attitudes of prejudice lying dormant (or not so dormant) in our hearts. We must go one step further still and build relationships with those who are not like us. God’s vision is for the complete restoration of His world and He is against those who stand in the way of that. Let us take courage from His support and commit ourselves to working toward the same ends.